As much as cloud services make life easier, there are two types of them which I’ve always felt bad about: files and calendar.

I’m not including e-mail on that list. I’m not ready, and maybe will never be, to host my own e-mail server. There are many reasons for it (maintenance, handling power outages, reliability etc.) which all could be addressed, but in the end e-mail communication requires at least two parties, where one of them might not be as prudent about handling e-mails as I’d like to. So inevitably, I treat e-mail communication as not something I can have full control of.

This is different for my files and calendar. My main reason for considering anything in the “cloud” to store my files and calendar is synchronisation across multiple devices. Further reasons to that are back-up and accessibility on multiple devices. The latter reason is somewhat questionable to me but the reality is that people kind of expect me to be able to whip out my phone, check my calendar and tell them when I’m available.

Disqualifying cloud services

I had been a long time user of Dropbox. This all started at the time when privacy was not a concern and this kind of cloud services appeared to be a real boon. Possibly even at that time companies providing those services didn’t even had in mind exploring users privacy. All my calendar was with Google and that felt awesome as well.

When I begun restoring my privacy, files and calendar were my biggest concern. I quickly came across Nextcloud, but being not ready, I tried out some publicly hosted instances. It always bothered me though, especially that I had no control over the features enabled on a particular instance, nor its version.

I also considered to keep on using public instances, or even return to Dropbox, but with file encryption. This is doable but it’d still nag me.

For the calendar, in the early days of my journey of restoring my privacy, I evaluated Tutanota which at the time did not have calendar. Apparently, at the time of writing of this post, they seem to be doing quite well (I follow them). They’re still missing private file storage but as far as I can tell, this is something they are planning to provide. I’m no longer sure though whether I’d give my data back to anyone again. They are doing a great job to make it convenient for people which for whatever reason are not in a position to handle their data themselves, but to me it’d feel like taking a step back.

Synology

I have a Synology server which attempts to make it super convenient to not only own “cloud” services, but also physically own the host machine and data. I do appreciate this a lot. I’ve tried its calendar, cloud storage (SynologyDrive), notes (SynologyNote) and photo synchronisation (Moments). It seemed easy to install and configure but at times felt unreliable. I got fed up once when all my calendar events disappeared in the web version of the calendar. After an hour or so of investigating it, I found out that one of the events I created on my iPhone made it really upset (it could not handle some Apple specific calendar meta-data). Also photo synchronisation worked worse and worse for me, and eventually stopped working for reasons I’ve never figured out.

So regretfully I gave up on it and looked for an alternative.

Nextcloud on FreeNAS

Eventually, I ended up with my own Nextcloud instance. I was encouraged to try it out as it was available as a plug-in on FreeNAS, which in the meantime I played with and liked. In fact, being more familiar with Nextcloud installation now, I’m tempted to build it all myself from scratch as it’d allow me to be at the latest version. Yet I’m a bit reluctant to spend hours on finding out what went wrong with data migration, and possibly I’d need to invest a bit of time to build an iocage for it.

With Nextcloud I get both file storage and calendar, so it’s got what I was looking for. Plus it supports WebDAV, and there’s an iOS app and I can also synchronise photos from my phone. I use WebDAV for password synchronisation (at the moment I’m using Enpass) and photos synchronisation with a Synology at home (I can view them on TV over DLNA). For the photos, I sold Nikon D80 few years ago when I saw pictures I took (with some effort) compared to those which my wife took with her iPhone (with no effort). So being able to easily synchronise photos is a great bonus. Synchronising all of this on my laptops (Linux and MacOS) is easy and well supported.

For all of this to make sense to me, I wanted to also have physical control over the disk storage, so my FreeNAS/Nextcloud instance runs on my old desktop PC, with disk encryption enabled.

My back-up strategy relies on files and calendars being distributed on multiple devices. So if any of them (including the server) fails, I still have a copy of the data on other devices. For the photos, which I do not synchronise all across devices, they are synchronised to my Synology (mainly to be able to view them on TV at home, as my FreeNAS server is located in my daily office), which has an encrypted AWS back-up set up.

Conclusion

As people rely more on digital solutions to organise their lives, I wish there was a super convenient way of owning generated data and also the physical medium where this data is stored. Synology and similar NAS solutions make it somewhat easier but even that is not something I’d recommend to everyone. It should be pretty much like a washing machine which is plugged in and that’s it. But even with simple appliances, the appetite for IoT and seeing where this is all going to, chances are high that the effort required to own data and protect privacy will not become lower.

Updates

2020-03-18

Since I screwed up with full-disk encryption in my Nextcloud/FreeNAS installation (something failed, the disk stopped accepting the password and remained locked after several unclean reboots), I’m back on Synology safely kept at home: calendar, WebDAV and pretty much everything except for email. It’s a pity it does not support full disk encryption but for the time being it’s a minor disadvantage.

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